Arab Film Festival Preview

I’ve been able to preview two films screening at the upcoming Arab Film Festival. One of them is also playing at Mill Valley.

Captain Abu Raed, Mill Valley: Sequoia, Friday, October 10, 7:30 (rush only); Rafael, Sunday, October 12, 4:45. Arab Film Festival: Clay (San Francisco), Friday, October 17, 4:00; Camera 12 (San Jose), Saturday, October 18, 4:00. This Jordanian tale of a wise and kindly airport janitor who befriends the neighborhood children occasionally steers towards the mawkish and sentimental, but usually skirts the danger zone. Nadim Sawalha is charming and likeable as the widowed protagonist whom the local kids mistake for a pilot (hence the Captain in the title). He begins by telling them stories, but gradually becomes involved in their lives. Although his intentions are good, his interference can have unintended consequences.

The Yellow House, Clay (San Francisco), Friday, October 17, 6:30; ; Camera 12 (San Jose), Saturday, October 18, 6:30. This Algerian story looks at an important and universal tragedy: the death of a child. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shed much light on the experience, and succeeds merely in being sad and vaguely heartwarming. Heartwarming? Yes, because love and community heal even the worst of wounds. The first half concerns a simple farmer’s journey to the big city to identify and collect his son’s body. In the second half, the man tries, with the help of his daughters, to ease his wife out of her resulting depression. All in all, only moderately effective.

Good Grief! More Festivals

Tracking all the Bay Area’s film festivals is a full-time job. And if anyone’s willing to pay me, I’m ready and qualified.

In addition to to the big Mill Valley Film Festival, all the festivals I told you about on the 23rd, and the additional two I mentioned on the 25th, there are two other festivals coming up:

The 7th annual Oakland International Film Festival plays October 9th through the 16th. They’re actually starting with a golf tournament (on Yom Kippur, no less), and then moving on to the Grand Lake for the festival’s first screenings. Among those opening-night films are Traces of the Trade, where filmmaker Katrina Brown researches her family’s connection to the slave trade. Other films that sound interesting include Passion of Power, about the history of the vibrator, and Teplitz: The Tyranny of Paradox, “A dark comic, sci-fi feature…[about] a young man who joins an organization of metaphysical travelers to learn the truth about his shrouded past.”

The 12th International Latino Film Festival opens November 7 and runs through the 23. (The festival also screens movies at various locations throughout the year.) Starting with the traditional opening at the Castro, it will also screen films in Redwood City, San Jose, San Rafael, Larkspur, Berkeley, San Mateo, and San Bruno. As I write this, International Latino Film Society has yet to post this year’s movies and schedule is on their site, but the press release promises a documentary on Afro-Cuban musician Israel “Cachao” López, a Brazilian Brazilian funk and hip-hop musical reminiscent plot-wise of West Side Story, and a Sundance and Berlin award-winning futurist tale.

That’s a total of eleven current or upcoming festivals (including two closing tonight). So many, in fact, that there aren’t enough film to go around. At least one movie, Captain Abu Raed, is playing at two festivals, Mill Valley and Arab (I’ll post a capsule review tomorrow.)

What’s Screening: September 26-October 2

What do jazz, marijuana, and the family problems of Asian Americans have in common? (And you thought it was going to be easy.) Excellent films on all three of those subjects open for all-too-limited runs open today. In fact, everything’s good–very good–in this week’s line-up.

Oh, yes, and the Mill Valley Film Festival opens Thursday night. You can read my initial report and my capsule reviews of six of the films screening. (Two smaller festivals also run this week.)

A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers, Clay, opens Friday. Wayne Wang triumphs in his return to Chinese-American subject matter. Wang and writer Yiyun Lee let the drama build slowly in this story of a Chinese father visiting his now-American daughter after her recent divorce. But there’s more separating them than culture and an ocean. The sort of wonderful story that Hollywood would just mess up, but that video technology makes economically feasible outside of Hollywood. Read my full review.

Anita O’Day – Life of a Jazz Singer, Kabuki, opens Friday. People don’t recognize the name Anita O’Day the way they do Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, but as a jazz vocalist she’s arguably in their class. She possessed a beautiful voice, a unique and expressive way of making familiar lyrics her own, and a phenomenal sense of rhythm and pacing. Filmmakers Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden provide you with a great introduction, wisely concentrating on the music rather than her bad marriages and drug addictions. The movie left me wanting to buy some Anita O’Day recordings; I guess it did its job. Read my full review.

Humboldt County, Lumiere, Shattuck, opens Friday. Movies that start as broad comedies and turn serious seldom work, yet first-time writers/directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs pull it off beautifully in Humboldt County. They start their film as a hysterically funny fish-out-of-water comedy about an awkwardly shy medical student (Jeremy Strong) dropped into a family of northern California backwoods pot farmers. But as we realize what paranoia is doing to this warm, loving, and almost constantly stoned bunch, the film gets serious. Humboldt County pays loving yet clear-eyed tribute to an unusual lifestyle. Read my full review.

Berkeley Video & Film Festival, Shattuck, Friday through Sunday. This three-day festival of extremely independent cinema has an interesting ticket policy. A $13 ticket buys you entry for an entire day. On Saturday, that’s from 1:00pm to nearly midnight…with, I’m glad to say, some modest intermissions.

Romeo and Juliet (1968), Castro, Thursday. Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare’s popular romantic tragedy changed forever how filmmakers approached the Bard–and changed it for the better. Beautiful, violent, funny, sad, and lusciously romantic, it makes the 400-year-old play new and immediately exciting. Zeffirelli’s decision to cast actual teenagers in the leading roles was controversial at the time, but is absolutely the right thing to do. On a double bill with Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (the one staring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), as part of the Castro’s tribute to Composer Nino Rota.

Iranian Film Festival, San Francisco Art Institute, Saturday and Sunday. A decade or so ago, Iranian films like Children of Heaven were an art-house rage, and deservedly so. Does Iran still make movies that good? You can find out this weekend when this brand new festival (“First Annual,” according to the announcement) unspools.

Singin’ in the Rain, Lark, Sunday, 4:00. In 1952, the late twenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950’s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00; Sunday, 5:00. Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father, Walter Huston) prospect for gold in Mexico. They find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed. One of the all-time greats. Another Cerrito Classic.

Raging Bull, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Martin Scorsese put a cap on 70’s cinema with this study of boxer Jake La Motta. It isn’t an easy film to watch; the experience is not unlike a good pummeling, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Midnight Movie: Blade Runner, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday nights. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. I’ve written more on this film.

Two More Festivals

I told you there were a lot of festivals coming up. I missed two:

Dead Channels, October 3-9: In its second year, Dead Channels celebrates independent and international fantasy films, with an emphasis on horror. It’s clearly going for the same audience as Hole in the Head. Mostly at the Roxie, it moves to the Parkway for its last day. The official dates are October 2-10, but no actual films are screened opening or closing nights, which are devoted to parties at The Vortex Room.

Taiwan Film Festival, October 16-18: This modest touring festival comes to the Bay Area just as all the other post-Mill Valley festivals open. Focusing on films about “Youth and Redemption,” the festival runs October 16 and 17 at the University of San Francisco, and October 17 and 18 at Stanford. They’ll present different films at each location.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

Music documentary

  • Directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden

People don’t recognize the name Anita O’Day the way they do Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, but as a jazz vocalist she’s arguably in their class. She possessed a beautiful voice, a unique and expressive way of making familiar lyrics her own, and a phenomenal sense of rhythm and pacing.

And she lived the Jazz lifestyle, complete with bad romantic choices, drug busts, and heroin addiction. But unlike Holiday, she lived to tell the tale, dying in 2006 at the age of 87. Filmmakers Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden interviewed her extensively for this documentary, and they treat it as the biography of a still-living, still-vibrant performer.

O’Day clearly lived life to the max. She jokes about bad marriages, overdoses, and other subjects most people wouldn’t want to talk about. And not only with Cavolina and McCrudden, but in vintage television interviews, as well.

The filmmakers wisely keep the scandals in the background (a rape and abortion are alluded to but never discussed), and concentrate on the music. They’re more interested in singing techniques and collaborations than bad habits, and frankly, so am I. The movie’s best sequence starts with an elderly O’Day sings “Let’s Fall in Love,” explaining her technique to the younger pianist accompanying her. Then a montage shows us how she sang that song at different times and with different bands, demonstrating the incredible range and variety of her performances. We even get a split screen showing four performances at once.

Cavolina and McCrudden took great pains to avoid a standard talking-heads documentary. Color patterns decorate old black-and-white footage, simple but lively opticals enliven the transitions, and images that don’t fill the entire screen sometimes move across it. These techniques occasionally seem random, but seldom annoying. Occasionally, such as the “Let’s Fall in Love” montage, they help to bring home a point.

The movie left me wanting to buy some Anita O’Day recordings. I guess it did its job.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer opens Friday at the Kabuki‘s SFFS screen.

Humboldt County


  • Written and directed by Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs

Movies that start as broad comedies and turn serious seldom work. The transition is tricky, especially if you don’t layer in enough reality between the big laughs before the drama begins.

Yet first-time writers/directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs pull it off beautifully in Humboldt County. They start their film as a hysterically funny fish-out-of-water comedy, where both the fish and the other-than-water he lands in are absurd and familiar stereotypes. But as the movie progresses, they let a little humanity work its way in. The laughs slowly get farther apart, but we don’t mind because we’re involved with real people living in an but real and fascinating subculture.

The fish is a hopelessly awkward med student named Peter (Jeremy Strong). Raised by an extremely dominating, workaholic father (Peter Bogdanovich in a rare appearance in someone else’s film), this kid has so little self-confidence that when a woman makes a pass at him, he assumes she’s a prostitute. It’s that woman (Bogart, played by Fairuza Balk), who pulls him out of his dad-controlled life and drops him into the world of northern California backwoods Marijuana farming.

He’s not amused. But we are.

The family she brings him to is a decidedly odd bunch. Ruled (if that word applies) by a gray ponytailed patriarch (Brad Dourif), they’re a warm, loving, and almost constantly stoned bunch. Even the too-young-to-smoke granddaughter (Madison Davenport) rolls expert joints for grandma and grandpa. But the paranoia of their illegal cash crop, and perhaps that crop’s effect on their brains, has taken it’s toll. These people aren’t as carefree and happy as they first seem.

Of course Peter loosens up and learns to relax in this strange environment–anyone who’s ever seen a movie can see that coming. But not in the way those other movies might lead you to suspect. He develops an interesting moral strength, and while he learns to love these people, he sees them clearer than they see themselves.

Speaking of love, Grodsky and Jacobs wisely get Bogart out of the way quickly. Rather than concentrating on romantic love, they focus on Peter’s growing-but-difficult friendship with another man his age (Chris Messina), one who’s taking the big risk of growing too many plants.

Humboldt County pays loving tribute to an unusual lifestyle, but manages to be clear-eyed and critical, as well. That’s as difficult as being funny and dramatic.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Family Drama

  • Written by Yiyun Lee; based on her short story
  • Directed by Wayne Wang

Generations and cultures clash, but quietly, in Wayne Wang’s return to Chinese-American subject matter.

Things feel strained when widower Mr. Shi (Henry O) arrives in America to visit his daughter Yilan (Faye Yu). That’s understandable. They haven’t seen each other since she left China 15 years before, and he’s here to help her recover from a divorce. But as Yilan avoids talking to her father while discouraging his attempted nurturing, we begin to realize just how much each of them is concealing.

Lee and Wang let the drama build slowly by emphasizing culture-clash comedy in the film’s first half. Not broad comedy (well, the unemployed forensic scientist in the bikini is pretty broad), but quite funny in a low-key way.

But the laughs ease us into the problems ahead. It’s soon clear that her father is the last person Yilan wants to confide anything to, and she’s soon doing everything she can to avoid his presence.

Everyone in the small cast is spot on, but Henry O is the true revelation here. A familiar face from costume films and action flicks, here he reveals a depth and humanity that he hadn’t yet shown–at least not to American audiences.

After the leads, the only character with any sort of significant role is Madame–an aging Iranian refugee played by Vida Ghahremani. After meeting in a park, Madame and Mr. Shi build a friendship despite a significant language barrier. The only language they have in common is English, which neither speaks well. Wang wisely avoids subtitles in their scenes together, forcing us to struggle with them to understand each other.

Shot cheaply on video, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is the sort of wonderful story that Hollywood would just mess up, but that modern technology makes economically feasible outside of Hollywood.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers screened at the 2008 San Francisco Asian American Film Festival.